Spaceship Earth is this year's Apollo 11 – a thoroughly fascinating documentary that uses archival footage to make you feel like part of a notable event. In this case, though, we're not talking about space travel. Instead, the film is about Biosphere 2, that self-contained replica of Earth's ecosystem that took the country by storm in 1991. You couldn't escape news of it at the time, but not many of us think about it anymore. Director Matt Wolf tracks its creation, brief popularity, and ultimate downfall.
What you may not realize is that Biosphere 2 wasn't the brainchild of scientists. A charismatic man named John Allen led a collective whose members were interested in art, theater, commerce, psychology, and many other subjects. Science just happened to be one of them. Together, they launched ambitious projects, such as planting orchards and building their own ship to travel the world.
Eventually they decided to tackle something much bigger. At great expense and with the participation of wealthy investors, Allen and crew built Biosphere 2, a 3.14-acre research facility in Arizona designed to replicate the Earth's entire ecosystem within its walls. Eight people were locked inside for two full years, studying the plants and animals the place contained. The public was enthralled with the concept. Events inside, however, were less than idyllic. As the footage shows, there was conflict among the crew, an excess of carbon monoxide threatened to put people in peril, and one person briefly left after sustaining an injury, which opened up a Pandora's Box of authenticity issues.
Those are just some of the problems. Spaceship Earth also documents a surprise twist that took place after the experiment was over, one that involves a man who has become a prominent, highly controversial political figure in the last few years.
Spaceship Earth does two things exceedingly well. First, it lets us get to know Allen and his companions via on-camera interviews. Some have called them charlatans. The film isn't so quick to go there, instead painting them as inspired individuals looking to make the world a better place through their ambitious agenda. Allen, in particular, has been criticized as a “cult leader,” although it's clear no one views him that way. Everybody describes him as essentially the glue that held a disparate group of people together, focusing their diverse talents into a cohesive whole. Regardless of how you choose to view them, they're a colorful bunch, and that makes them fun to meet.
The other thing the movie does is put us inside Biosphere 2. The footage Wolf has access to is extraordinary. We can see the work being done, the disagreements, and the way the participants vary between feeling like they're doing something profound and feeling as though they're rats in a maze. Just as importantly, Spaceship Earth spends time showing how the media covered the endeavor. In some respects, the whole thing was a Rorschach test, allowing the public to project its own ideas onto what it all meant.
I remember the obsession with Biosphere 2 vividly, yet had no idea how dramatic its rise and fall was. At the time, it seemed like a futuristic event that weirdly fizzled out. Spaceship Earth takes viewers deep inside the entire journey, revealing things you likely didn't know either. In the end, the movie is a riveting celebration of big dreams and grand ideas. Biosphere 2 may not have changed the world, but the people behind it certainly give it their best shot.
out of four
Spaceship Earth is unrated but contains adult language. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.